We are healthier when we cook our own food for a very simple reason: when we cook, we control the ingredients that go into the food. The companies that prepare so much of the takeout, frozen entrées, mix-and-eat boxes and restaurant meals that we eat are motivated by a desire for us to spend money on their food, so they’ll throw in whatever it takes for them to turn a profit and keep us coming back for more. Quite often, that involves a lot of salt, sugar and ingredients that come out of a chemistry lab, not from a farm.
“Even poor women who cook have healthier diets than wealthy women who don’t. The usual class bias in the quality of diet is overtaken by this key fact.”
I found the breathtaking quote at right during a fascinating talk from food writer Michael Pollan about how cooking can change your life (the quote below at left also comes from the same video). The problem, though, is that cooking takes a lot of time, planning and effort. And if you’re already juggling jobs, kids, pets, friends, job training, school, caring for elderly parents, budget pressures and your own desperate need to just go soak in a tub for a while, cooking can be really hard.
I’m constantly working to find solutions to that problem. As I mentioned last week, even though I enjoy cooking, I often struggle to find the time for it. But one thing that can be a big help in the battle is keeping the pantry (or a cabinet, closet or some shelves) well-stocked so that you don’t always have to plan a meal, follow a recipe or run to the grocery to pick up an ingredient. If you can grab a few things off a shelf and toss together a quick meal, maybe you won’t give in to the temptation of the drive-thru window.
“You want to know the diet for America? The one diet that would work? Eat anything you want. Just cook it yourself.”
So this week, I surveyed the lists of a few experts (including Bryant Terry, Mark Bittman and Alice Waters), took a look at my own pantry and came up with this list of things to keep handy so that you’ll always have something to work with when you have the opportunity to whip up a quick meal (here are a few ideas for inspiration). This list is not exhaustive (if you’re a baker, you’ll obviously need things like yeast, vanilla and pastry flour), and you’ll probably want to add and subtract items depending on your own tastes and dietary needs, but I hope this will help you establish a baseline to work from. Scale it up or down, depending on your budget, space constraints and ambition.
In the refrigerator
- Mustards (one with seeds for vinaigrette and something spicy)
- Cheeses (at the very least, some Parmesan and something melt-y)
- Butter or ghee
- Plain yogurt
- Lemon juice
- Veggies that keep well (celery, carrots, olives, kale)
- Flours (I have Sonrisa whole wheat, besan and atta flours in the fridge)
- Soy sauce
- Hot sauce
- Small amounts of meat (bacon, prosciutto)
Also, don’t forget the leftovers, as they can be rolled into the next meal.
In the freezer
- Frozen vegetables of all sorts
- Frozen fruits
- Precooked food (beans, grains, sauces or stocks you’ve cooked ahead)
- Oils (olive, coconut, seed, nut and/or something neutral)
- Vinegars (red, white, rice, balsamic, cider)
- Pastas and noodles
- Grains (polenta, cornmeal, couscous, bulgar, quinoa, oats, wheat berries)
- Rice (brown, wild, black)
- Dried beans (all sorts, but especially lentils, which cook quickly)
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes
- Tomato paste
- Canned fish (anchovies, tuna, sardines, salmon)
- Sweeteners (sugar, honey, syrup)
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Bread crumbs
- Nut butter
- Dried fruit
- Coconut milk
- Sweet potatoes
On the spice rack
- Grinder full of peppercorns
- Bay leaves
- Chili powder
- Red pepper flakes
- Onion powder
Growing on the windowsill or in the backyard
If you’re not sure about where to keep something, here are some food storage tips from the experts. And be careful to take it easy with the expectations. You don’t have to be a gourmet or someone who cooks every night. Set a modest goal of cooking a little bit more than you do now, and work from there. You’ll be healthier for it, and you might discover that once the pressure eases up a bit, it can be enjoyable!
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.